People experience buildings differently, so clean and simple design is essential – and all too easily neglected, finds Eleanor Young
It’s only ok if you can look at it with a hangover and feel alright; that is artist Hugo Dalton’s verdict on public sculpture. What happens if you apply the same rule to architecture? Does the work of Frank Gehry get knocked out of the ring or does it neatly sort his projects? Do Battersea’s squiffy flats go out while the silvery titanium arcs of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao stay in?
How people experience space is intriguing. There must be papers on why teenagers don’t see their bedrooms as messy, even while their parents despair of ever getting a hoover round. I have been accidentally experimenting with perception, first with long Covid then migraines. Stairs looked evil for a long time to me, struggling with fatigue and breathing issues, long flights were even worse and I still can’t understand those evening events with no seat in sight. The brain tangles and then the neural disturbance and hypersensitivity of migraines mean that now I use ‘complicated’ like a swear word, damning train stations with their complex navigation between competing pulses of passengers, hospital waiting rooms and the unremitting fluorescence of shops and offices.
The balance between these different perceptions and needs can be hard to strike. Should we eschew putting staircases front and centre because that disadvantages so many or should we celebrate the demands they make on the able bodied and the potential to incorporate a sociable fitness regime into, say, office life. At the RNIB’s headquarters the design team showed that asking questions of users can lead to a middle path that works for more people, a contrast in texture could work without the busyness of strong visual contrast.
The sham classical sobriety of the porch columns was exposed by the utilitarian tap positioned prominently alongside
What is remarkable is that the barriers to creating calm environments are so hard to break down. Standards such as the new PAS 6463 on neurodiversity and the built environment can help, good budgets and generosity of space can help (don’t they always?). The building, outside and in, has to be designed for the life around it. Reducing the number of materials and their messy interfaces, and using ones we see as natural can help. But how they work together all comes down to the design and how it is constructed.
I started thinking about this piece staring at a new million-pound stone house where the sham classical sobriety of its porch columns was exposed by the utilitarian tap positioned prominently alongside them, a yellow hose snaking from it past the meter box. Ceilings randomly studded with smoke sensors, CCTV or light fittings are another reliable measure of the architect and their relationship with the contractor and subbies.
Making complicated simple can start small with services co-ordination. Remember the test: It’s only ok if you can look at it with a hangover and feel alright. It’s lucky I’m not drinking.